Making blocks of money
At the age of 31, Zinc Lam Chi-sing is chief operating officer for Laputa Eco-Construction Material, a business that uses waste glass in the production of paving blocks for the construction industry. His company's products are used by developers in major property constructions in both Hong Kong and on the mainland.
Your company's main product is eco-glass blocks, which uses recycled glass as one of the raw materials for making new bricks. Did you invent this?
No. It is the third generation of a concept developed at the Polytechnic University (PolyU). I focused on eco-glass blocks in my research for my master's degree at PolyU. I devoted a lot of time and effort into developing it and felt it would be a waste if I didn't take it further. So together with three friends, we took what little money we had saved up, sought out investors and started the company in 2006.
What were the challenges you faced in running the business?
When we started my partners were concerned about the high cost of labour and the low environmental awareness in Hong Kong. But I think the biggest challenge was money. In the beginning we didn't have a lot of funding. I saved up HK$60,000, and an investor put in about HK$100,000. We had big orders, but after investing in machinery and raw materials we didn't have much money left.
What I didn't anticipate was it might take as long as nine months before companies pay their suppliers. For about six months we didn't have any money at all. It got so bad we - the four senior executives - weren't paid a salary. I had to take a second job and teach tutorial classes to make ends meet.
What enabled you to succeed?
It's about never giving up. When you are faced with challenges, like not having a lot of money, you have to take your negative attitude and convert that into motivation. You have to make yourself understand that if you are not satisfied with the way things are, it's because you haven't tried hard enough. You have to just keep working at it until you are happy with it.
What's your advice for people starting their own business?
Start from the bottom and learn as much as you can from doing different things. I've had jobs from coolie to sales, and delivering fast food take out. Blue-collar jobs like these give you a practical understanding of the way things are done, which is important because otherwise people have this ideal-world-situation way of looking at things that just doesn't work. On the other hand, you are in a leadership role and you have to show people how things are done. You can't do that until you've tried it out yourself.
For those who want to start an environmental business, keep it simple. If you make it too technical or complicated, people will fail to grasp it. When we make presentations to clients they aren't usually interested in the theory behind how something works. They want to know what the end results and benefits are. An important issue to keep in mind is toxicity. Hongkongers are very conscious of things that may hurt their health, and if there is even a hint that something is slightly toxic, they won't use it.
Path to success
Winner of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons Award (2009)
Gold award winner of the Shell LiveWIRE Awards (2006)
Eco-glass block was selected by Chief Secretary for Administration Henry Tang Ying-yen for use in the Hong Kong pavilion at the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai